sex abuse victims back tougher law
By Pat Schneider - Madison Capitol Times
September 19, 2003
A litany of outrages was voiced at a State Capitol hearing
as scores of survivors of clergy sexual abuse bore witness
Thursday to the crimes against them.
In tears and anger, in voices loud and small, adult survivors
from around the state and beyond recalled moments of their
childhood when molestation at the hands of a trusted clergy
member changed their lives.
The assaults were made behind altars, in rectories and at
waysides on the road, in the guise of love or games, or as
clothes-ripping attacks, the survivors testified.
"He took everything from me," Michael Sneesby said
of the priest who abused him for several years in his Milwaukee
parish when he was a boy.
Sneesby and other survivors joined representatives of mainline
religions, legal experts and others at a hearing on a proposed
clergy abuse law before the joint Assembly Judiciary and Senate
Judiciary, Corrections and Privacy committees.
Committee leaders said they did not know when a vote would
While most religious organizations in the state support the
legislation, survivors of abuse said it falls short because
- while it significantly extends the statute of limitations
for bringing criminal or civil actions against sex abusers
of minors - it fails to provide an opportunity to sue for
victims for whom the statute of limitations has expired.
A provision offering a one-year window for lawsuits in older
cases was dropped from earlier versions of the bill.
Rep. Peggy Krusick, D-Milwaukee, a co-sponsor of the bill,
said it was dropped after the Legislative Council advised
that it was unconstitutional.
Rep. David Cullen, D-Milwaukee, pressed the sponsors to restore
the retroactive window and let litigants take their chances
But John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic
Conference, testified that restoring it would likely mean
the Catholic Church would no longer support the bill.
Survivors, whose testimony of past assaults cracked open
a national scandal in the Catholic Church, said there can
be no justice for them without a chance for their day in court.
Lawsuits open up church records, laying bare cover-ups and
the existence of more victims, survivors testified.
Without the threat of litigation, churches won't negotiate
meaningful settlements, they said.
Peter Isely, Milwaukee coordinator for Survivors Network
of those Abused by a Priest, or SNAP, used huge placards to
trace how evidence of institutional manipulations was revealed
in a lawsuit against the priest who abused him.
"This is not about past and future victims; it's about
future abusers," Isely said. "It's about Wisconsin
being the shame of the nation."
Lawsuits also give survivors the chance to name and confront
their abusers, many of whom threatened and bullied victims
and their families into silence, survivors said.
Patty Gallagher Marchant, a SNAP activist and Milwaukee therapist,
testified to being raped in the 1960s in her Monona parish
by the Rev. Lawrence Trainor.
"He told me I was the chosen one," Marchant said.
American Catholic dioceses last year established independent
boards to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct by
priests, and the Madison Diocese in February named Trainor
as one of four priests against whom documented allegations
of serious sexual abuse had been made, resulting in $1.6 million
in settlements to 19 victims.
It was the first time the diocese had publicly acknowledged
the case against Trainor.
Madison Bishop Robert Morlino on Thursday testified in favor
of the bill in its current form, saying it would help restore
people's faith in the church.
"Society is calling on us to face our shortcomings and
challenging us in conscience," he said. "I want
you to know we've heard that call," he told committee
Morlino said he did not know whether changing the law to
permit a window of retroactivity was an appropriate response
to the suffering of abuse survivors.
Survivors testified that the psychological damage of sexual
molestation can prevent victims from realizing the extent
to which they've been damaged for decades after the assaults.
Marchant said that even with strong family support that allowed
her to develop a profession and a strong marriage, she didn't
fully confront the extent to which she'd been violated until
she was 35 years old. Then began the battle with the Madison
diocese for acknowledgement of the harm done to her, she said.
State law sets the statute of limitations on serious sex
abuse of a child at age 31 for the victim in criminal cases
and age 20 for civil litigation. The proposed law would raise
those limits to age 45 for the victim in criminal cases and
age 35 in civil cases.
The bill also would add clergy members to the list of professionals
required by law to report suspected child abuse to civil authorities.
A further bar to the courts for victims in Wisconsin has
been a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling in a case involving
a priest's sexual relationship with an adult. The court said
it could not evaluate whether the Catholic Church had properly
hired, supervised or trained workers because of constitutional
constraints. Lawsuits against the church in Wisconsin evaporated
when that ruling came down.
Krusick said that decision never prohibited a lawsuit in
a case of child sexual assault, but that her legislation would
codify existing law by stating that the sexual abuse of child
by a clergy member is a cause of action.
Mark Salmon of Milwaukee testified how Wisconsin law and
cover-ups by the Catholic Church allowed his abuser to go
free here while he has been sued and prosecuted in Kentucky.
"Why is Wisconsin the safest place for pedophiles in
the nation?" Salmon asked.
Mary Beth Volz of Menomonee Falls testified that the priest
who raped her as a child left the church to marry, but his
status as a priest protected him from ever being exposed and
"He has grandchildren now. I pray for them all the time,"
Published: 10:00 AM 9/19/03